High time I fess up: my plan for the year failed.
I came here with the dream of investing time in my writing: submitting essays, getting published. I knew that getting published is hard, but I didn’t fret: I can be persistent as a jackhammer. What I didn’t foresee was how disheartening the process would feel in the windy plains of our new Midwestern life. I’d get excited about a piece; toil away at it; email it to friends; toil at the revisions; submit it; wait to hear; receive the rejection notice; try to find somewhere else to submit it.
When I was teaching full time I reveled in the sunshine of children. Not only does the submission process fall short in the sunshine department; it leaves me with far less to write about. It turns out that I can be persistent as a jackhammer only when I’m receiving the proper air supply. (Who doesn’t google “jackhammer maintenance” now and then? Did you know jackhammers need proper air supply and regular air hose inspections? I could elaborate on similarities between my creative process and other fine points of jackhammer use, but I’ll move on.)
It turns out I liked my life the way it was. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep submitting, too. But I belong in a school community.
I’ve begun to see this year in perspective. Any time we try something and it doesn’t work out the way we hoped, we gain valuable information. How sad would it be to spend decades teaching while wondering if I’d be happier with a writing career? Now I know.
That four-sentence paragraph tumbled out easily enough, but it has taken four painful months to arrive at it. For a while it looked like my get-up-and-go had gotten up and gone. It was hard to get out of bed in the morning. The dark looked darker. The cold felt colder. Cookies began to resemble salvation.
I suspect that ‘most everyone goes through seasons like this. I’d love to claim a foolproof fix: some brilliant insight that propelled me through the pain and restored my zest for living. In truth, I do feel like myself again, but I earned this about as much as I earned the sunrise. We can set up the conditions for joy; joy itself is a gift.
One of the boons of this challenging year has been a sustained opportunity to examine the conditions for joy in my life. Here are a few of the practices that point me toward the light. I’m curious about yours.
Get outside. In the cold of winter, when there’s a cat lounging cozily on my lap, it can be hard to find the motivation to bundle up, but walking across the earth grounds me. In early December I discovered a tree that I love to hug. If people happen to glance out the windows of the office building as I pass by, they probably think I’m nuts, but I don’t care. When I wrap my arms around the trunk and breathe deeply, I feel rooted and steadied.
Find something to sing to. Since I no longer sing with children all day, I’ve been finding other places to sing. I’ve sung a few times at church, and heaven knows David and I share countless goofy ditties. The new practice I cherish is singing to the river. I walk beside the water and intone the same two songs again and again. Somewhere in the midst of the repetition I begin to hear my self: not my fear and striving, but the presence that lies beneath.
Find new ways to move. When the New Year rolled around, I decided to add lap swimming and strength training to my exercise regimen. I’ve also begun to practice the guitar. Giving my body new challenges diverts my mind from its exhausting self-scrutiny. There are also endorphins involved. What’s not to like?
Cry, and then cry some more. I can’t count all the times I’ve wept over the past months. Have I been grieving for the home we left behind? For the friends, family, and students I miss? For my faltering ambition? Or have I simply become a big baby? What a relief it was to read the wisdom of Clarissa Pinkola Estés:
I am amazed how little women cry nowadays, and then apologetically. I worry when shame or disuse begins to steal away such a natural function. To be a flowering tree and to be moist is essential, otherwise you will break. Crying is good, it is right. It does not cure the dilemma, but it enables the process to continue instead of collapsing.
Do the things that help, even when they don’t help. For me it helps to read poetry, to journal, to ride my bicycle, to drench myself in music, to practice yoga, to make my own granola. There have been plenty of mornings when reading Rumi has awakened only pitiful nostalgia for a time when I, like the Sufi poet, felt “lost inside God.” But I read anyway, if only to remind myself that it’s possible to feel that way. I might journal mournful tripe, but I journal nonetheless. As Rumi recommends,Keep knocking, and the joy inside will eventually open a window and look out to see who’s there.
Darkness doesn’t last forever. While there’s no clock to foretell the soul’s dawn, believing that it will come is key. And when it does, we greet it with eyes that have been baptized by night: we’ve wept and rested, trusted and transformed. After all, in the grand scheme of life, our plans are like street lamps next to the sun.